Game of Thrones: Fan Response in the Social Media Era
The creators and producers of the Game of Thrones are finding out how dangerous today’s entertainment world has become. Navigating the world of public opinion is rapidly becoming more challenging than fighting the Night King and his army of the dead. No longer is it just okay to produce entertainment with expectation that fans will mindlessly consume it. Today’s fans have social media as a launching pad to quickly share their feelings - positive or negative – with other media consumers across the world. The cliched adage that bad news travels fast is being rewritten by bloggers and social media posters as bad news travels instantly. Only a select few appear to be motivated to tweet out support for a beloved program, but almost endless numbers of people are willing to take down a program for not living up to expectations.
The latest example of the internet being in an uproar is the massive negative fan response to Season 8 of the Game of Thrones. Fan sentiment has been particularly nasty since the quick dispatch of the Night King in Episode 3. Other choices such as Jaime making a 180 turn on his redemption character arc to go die with his incestuous sister, Dany going totally overboard moving from grisly executions of tyrants and slavers to the burning alive of innocent citizens for the first time ever, and numerous military strategies that would befuddle even the greatest of military minds has made Season 8 hard to digest for long-time fans. With social media, the Game of Thrones fans didn’t need to sit on their hands and passively watch the show. They could make a lot of noise for the whole world to read. Game of Thrones fans have been looked at as a unique phenomenon, but are they? I don’t think they are. They may be just another symptom of the rapid fire spread of opinion that has been created by online social media. Let’s look at a few other particularly angry fan bases currently attacking entertainment that they regularly “enjoy”:
These fans have been angry since Return of the Jedi chose to portray Ewoks on Endor’s moon instead of Wookies. The Prequels of the early 2000s aroused the ire of many a fan and are largely considered to have been poorly executed shadows of the original trilogy. As rough as stomaching Jar Jar Binks was for fans, today’s fan base was incensed by many of the poor choices Rian Johnson made in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Few will forget Leia flying through space sans a space suit and somehow surviving being spaced after her ship was blown open by enemy fire. The change in Luke’s character compared to fan expectations for the behavior of the centerpiece of the original trilogy was also a huge challenge for Star Wars fans. Their anger at the Last Jedi not meeting their expectations was so intense that it effectively punished the Han Solo movie at the box office as a result. This movie was a solid film but tanked at the box office (at least for a Star Wars film) in a large part because the “wounds” from Last Jedi were still fresh in many fans’ minds and they refused to go to the theatre to support Solo.
This group of fans always has a segment of their fans that can be trusted to reject the newest incarnation of Star Trek – whether a television series or a movie – as being not worthy of the title Star Trek. For some the reasoning is different, maybe it’s the new Discovery series breaks existing canon, or it has technology that looks too modern compared to 1966’s original series, or the fans just don’t like the characters – but there’s no arguing that Star Trek fans regularly fire photon torpedoes at current product and the creators. With Star Trek Discovery wrapping up its second season and Star Trek Picard beginning at the end of the year, the fans are quick to attack what they don’t like.
Not to be left out, the loyal WWE fanbase is angry right now. They quickly turn on wrestlers that are perceived to have the stamp of approval from the McMahon family. Fans don’t want wrestlers “pushed” to the top by management, they want to choose their stars and have the McMahons build storylines to support fan desires. What is ironic is this is a “sport” with preconceived outcomes, so how does any wrestler get successful without the support of the company owner (Vince McMahon) and the company’s creative force (also Vince McMahon)? To aggravate fans more, McMahon has made a series of choices over the last four years designed to build up Roman Reigns – McMahon’s choice to be the next big WWE superstar. These decisions have resulted in sometimes bizarre storylines that have weakened other wrestlers in a vain attempt to influence fans to root for Reigns. The fans have rebelled and now they’ve rejected Reigns. The storylines intended to create a new star have instead resulted in a roster of wrestlers who have been reduced in the eyes of fans due to characters behaving in ways that make no sense or being forced to behave in a manner that supports Reigns, not the self-interest of the characters in question. Angry fans responded by turning off WWE programming resulting in a precipitous drop in ratings.
There are many reasons that fans might raise their collective voices in protest and they all come back to fan expectations not meeting reality on the screen. The phenomenon of falling short of expectations is the bane of salespeople throughout history. Nothing is worse than a paying customer being upset when a product isn’t as good as they envisioned. While the customer is supposedly always right, we also know in the world of fandom, fan is short for fanatic. Thus, logic may get thrown out the window. Feelings run strong whether its someone who’s watched Star Trek in all of its multiple series and movies since 1966 or a long-suffering Cub or Red Sox fan prior to their team winning the World Series for the first time.
There is no doubt that some fans are expressing feelings simply because they can. In many ways social media has evolved so fast and so far, that society has not figured out how to deal with the effects of such ability to communicate to the masses and through the masses. This has been demonstrated numerous times when looking at the effects of social media on the political landscape. This can be particularly challenging when the opinions are factually incorrect or just the ramblings of individuals who are just looking for attention that social media platforms provide. Separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff is a point of contention and in the end, the creators will ultimately decide who is worth listening to. The risk of not listening is that the ratings, box office earnings, or even seats in the arena will suffer if the fans really are motivated to move away from a certain product.
One thing is certain - all creators of entertainment must be very worried about one particular “category” of customer complaint. This category is a legitimate ratings killer. When fans are so passionate that they become the Advocates for Excellent Writing (call it AEW – not All Elite Wrestling), then they deserve to be listened to. When fans are crying out for characters that behave in a manner consistent with the personality, goals, and desires demonstrated earlier in a story, fans are warning creators of a glaring hole that will cost the entertainment product of ratings and/or earning potential. When fans say characters have little or poor motivations, goals, and desires, fans are warning creators of a glaring hole that will cost the entertainment product of ratings and/or earning potential. When fans are wanting stories that have clear cut beginnings, middles, and conclusions and not getting them, fans are warning creators of a glaring hole that will cost the entertainment product of ratings and/or earning potential. When fans are advocating that continuity and internal logic that provides governance of the entertainment universe are not being followed and it knocks them out of a state of suspension of disbelief, fans are warning creators of a glaring hole that will cost the entertainment product of ratings and/or earning potential.
In today’s world of instantaneous communication, there are rules for creators of entertainment products, be they TV shows, movies, wrestling promotions, comic books, video games and any other medium that provides ongoing stories. They are simple to define. The creators must be consistent in constructing a universe that has rules for operating that make sense and are adhered to. The creators must be consistent in having characters that interact and behave in a way that makes sense and are in alignment with past behaviors. Finally, the creators must be consistent in telling stories that have a beginning, middle and an end.
If anyone wants to take a good look at a model to use for future entertainment endeavors, go no further than the Marvel Studios movies. They’ve told a story that is over 20 movies and a decade in the making. Each movie tells a story that works towards the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe’s story. The events of each movie matter and the characters grow and change over time. The archetype is out there. Who will follow it? Only time will tell, but Marvel has figured out how to reward fans for long-term loyalty to their brand.